Hey folks. Who says “folks,” anyway? If I were you I’d have already given up on this blog post.
Now, for those of you who know the basics of Japanese, you can just skip this next bit, and continue down to part B, which I’ve nicknamed “Project Lexicon” because I needed a cool name and stuff.
Japanese uses Chinese characters, called “kanji” in Japanese, in combination with their own “kana.” A kanji looks like this –> 漢字 while kana looks like this –> かな , and they are both used for different jobs. A typical sentence uses both kanji and kana.
Additionally, kanji is usually the method of naming nouns, and each kanji has multiple readings. For example, the kanji 道 can be read as “dou” or “michi” (among others) depending on what comes before it and after it.
PART B – PROJECT LEXICON :
Okay, so here’s what happened yesterday:
I was riding my motorcycle down the street, when I see a bus that says “Nangoku Kotsu” on the side in English lettering. Often, Japanese companies choose to write their name in English lettering to make it “pop” or give it a different feeling from using kanji or kana. My brain naturally wanted to figure out what “Nangoku” meant, since I already knew that “Kotsu” was the term for traffic and/or transportation network, as it is used in almost all bus company names here.
My brain took the term “Nangoku” and turned it over and over. “Nan” was clearly one kanji, just from my experience with kanji and their readings. “Goku” was probably “Koku,” as sometimes the first sound of a word or kanji gets changed with appended to another word. Thinking about the fact that it was a bus company, I decided that it had to be “koku,” because “koku” 国 means “land” or “country.” “Nan” is one way to read 南, which means South. I had a working theory within a few seconds of reading, and it made perfect sense: “Nangoku Kotsu” was 南国個通, which meant something like “southern lands transport.”
The crazy thing about all of this is that it involved reading something I didn’t know. I’ve always enjoyed reading new words in English and trying to use my limited knowledge of latin roots to acquire its meaning (I was that kid that read the dictionary during recess…I really wish I was joking). It’s a big rush to do something like that in Japanese, though!
After reading the word, I reflected on my brain’s journey in those five seconds.
English letters –> translate sounds to possible kanji readings –> check possible kanji against context –> affirm kanji and combine individual meanings –> translate combined meaning back into English.
While this was a victory and proud moment for me, I have many friends here who are lightyears ahead of me in their Japanese ability, and I know that they make these kinds of connections all the time. You really must, if you are going to thrive in Japanese. The fact that these things are possible, that it is actually possible to think in another language, however briefly, is something that surprises me in new ways every day!
Today, we are preparing for graduation, which takes place tomorrow at most schools in my prefecture.
I work at an academically-focused school, so most of my students will continue on to university after their graduation. This means many things for my students: they have a good chance at getting a job related to their field, they’ll have more free time, and they can get a part-time job. Part-time work is strictly forbidden at most high schools, including mine.
High school in Japan is rigorous. At my school, it involves studying from around 7:30 AM until often as late as 7:30 PM, when the school closes (although many students study and do homework before they come to school, as well as afterward).
College offers a different kind of lifestyle for these kids, who often tell me, “I like fishing, but now I don’t have time to fish,” or, as one student put it, “reading for pleasure is now my worst enemy.” They put in a LOT of hard work to make it to Graduation Day, but once they are accepted to a college or university, they know they can relax a bit. This also means that English enthusiasts will have the time to chat with foreign exchange students and improve their English. With the background of English memorization and grammar that students in academic schools receive here, they often leap forward dramatically when given a chance to make English-speaking friends with whom they speak regularly.
College tends to allow for more free time and personal freedom in general, for Japanese students, but they’ll also be leaving their homerooms behind. Teachers change classrooms each period in Japan, not students, so a homeroom stays together all day, every day. They become a kind of family, and this communal learning is a huge cornerstone of the Japanese educational philosophy.
Graduation takes place in our taikukan, or gymnauditorium ( both gymnasium and auditorium…yes I coined that). It is a fantastic structure, with a large stage, vaulted roof, and wooden floor. Students sit on the floor here, where the entire school can be gathered for school assemblies or events. At graduation, proud parents and guests sit above, in the balcony seating. This space is also used for P.E. classes, and sports a pair of folded-up basketball hoops.
3rd graders in high school (what we would refer to as “seniors”) are each called to receive their diploma, and presented with it by the school’s principal, who is assisted by one of the younger female teachers. The ceremony takes a decently long time. My school has about 400 graduating students.
One very interesting thing about graduation in Japan is that students have a very small gap between finishing their high school career and beginning their college one. I am very far from being an expert in how it works, but as I understand it, after graduation many 3rd graders will still be here at school, studying for entrance examinations or brushing up on their weaker skills. Many will prepare to move to a new city for college, as well. But the gap between graduation and the start of a new chapter in their lives barely spans a few weeks, and they must be prepared to start when the sakura (cherry blossoms) are in bloom. Sakura is a Japanese symbol for the start of something new, so in April everything has a new beginning: primary & secondary schooling, higher education, etc. Most companies also do the vast majority of their hiring in April.
I can only imagine what it must be like to leave a closely-knit homeroom, really a second family, bound for a new location and lifestyle. It must be exciting, terrifying, deeply sad, and fulfilling all at once. There are many, many tears at graduation, and I think they drip down with a bit of all of these things. They should, too. From where I’m standing, finishing Japanese high school is nothing less than a monumental accomplishment. I don’t know where train tracks, buses, and toll roads will take the sotsugyousei (graduating students) whom I see tomorrow, but I’ll be cheering for them from the bottom of my heart.
I seem to be improving in Japanese archery, which is quite the accomplishment considering that most physical activities are far beyond my reach (last night, no joke, I had a dream about becoming President. I was about to win but then I had to do a running test. I couldn’t run fast enough, so I lost. I literally couldn’t run for President.).
Yesterday I had a nice experience at archery club. I finally received my own arrows last week, which means that I can be much more accurate. They are measured to custom-fit my arm length, so instead of the arrow zipping around like me after a cup of coffee, they fly straight and true (you know, when I shoot correctly. So…I’ve seen it once). Shooting correctly takes a lot more steps than in Western archery. The bowstring ends up extended all the way past the archers ear and over the shoulder, and the string is held in a kind of O-ring made with the thumb and index finger. All that pressure rests on a few fingers inside of the deerskin glove, and so it’s hard to remain in that position for long. Of course, there are other very important points, such as aligning the arrow, pushing the bow downward (yet somehow upward at the same time…) and leaning into the bowstring. The arrow goes right against your cheek…you know what? This is really too difficult to explain without showing you:
Well, I feel pretty accomplished because I’ve been hitting the target once in a while, and my form is supposedly getting better. Yesterday, I also attached a new bowstring to my bow. This involves several steps, because the string is tied onto the ends of the bow with a special knot. The string then has to be reinforced with glue and string-like stuff around where the arrow clips onto it.
Here’s hoping I don’t skewer any children before Christmas!
It ruins the mood.
I’d like to celebrate the one year anniversary of my arrival in Japan by discussing one of my favorite things: animals!
One thing that I didn’t anticipate was being stunned by the nature of Japan all around me. It is said that Kyushu is a particularly beautiful part of Japan, and I am beginning to understand why.
I come from Seattle, which has its own stunning wildlife, such as cougars, geoducks, and indie rock hipsters. It’s a wide place with many different environments nearby, and I have loved growing up watching squirrels run around trees and munching on delicious elk sausage. But Japan is a different kind of beautiful. While the areas around Seattle display hardy creatures amid vast plains, Kyushu secrets dazzling beauties away in ravines and silent shrine forests. Where Seattle wildlife is stark and wild as the emerald pines, Japanese wildlife is dynamically colorful and unpredictably fantastical.
Before I moved to Japan, I assumed that most of the colorful creatures I’d seen with my buddy David (“David Attenborough” to all you uninitiated) on the television were all difficult to find and rarely seen. Japan has proven to me that some of the most startling creatures can live right beyond our front door. For example, here are a few of the animals I’ve seen this year!
Note: pictures are from Google images, but are accurate to what I’ve seen.
I have named them as though they were Final Fantasy espers, with the actual name in parentheses. You’re welcome.
Mephibosheth, Fire King (Common Lizard)
Believe it or not, these little guys are common! They are about four inches long and, as you can see there, they have a tail that is blue. I’m guessing it’s to attract predators and that they can regrow it after an attack. Just a guess there. Yes, I know I could Google it but I have other animals to gush over.
Julionicus, Destiny Amphibeing (Striped Frog)
This picture is slightly different than the one I saw. It was on the pathway leading to my house, and kept trying to leap up the concrete wall! It was really cute, and a little sad. The stripes on the one I saw were more like a tiger’s, which was striking, and the nose was very narrow and tapered, too.
Nagabi, Equinox Harbinger of Dawn (Giant Black Butterfly)
4 inch (or so) wingspan. These are easily my favorite thing about Japan. Not only are there butterflies EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME (you think I’m kidding, but I’m not. They’re seriously everywhere…) of different varieties and many, many colors, these huge black messengers soar above my school, home, and anywhere else I go. Perhaps they follow me, I don’t know. My obsession with black butterflies is such that one of my favorite songs is titled “Black Butterfly” (Laura Veirs) and one of my favorite cartoons features one prominently (Bleach). Therefore, you might not be surprised that when I arrived in Miyazaki, home of the black butterflies, I died a thousand deaths of sheer aesthetic appreciation.
Shirotsuki, Prism Harbinger of Nightfall (Luna Moth)
Hey guys. GUYS. I saw a Luna Moth. 6 inch wingspan.
It had been one of my life goals to see one, even just in a zoo. I saw one IN THE WILD WHILE I WAS CAMPING.
It landed, so I know it was for sure a real Luna. It had been flying around one of our camp lights and looked like a big white bat. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.
I don’t know how you can top this, Japan…
The following stuff happened in April.
Trip to Osaka
We decided to take the “dreaming ferry” to Osaka from Miyazaki. It’s about a twelve-hour ride, but you can board at night and arrive at about 8am!
Opting to save money by choosing the bunk-bed option, we spent a decently cozy night drifting among the waves to our destination. I have often wondered what it would be like to spend a trip to Mars in hibernation capsules. Well, I no longer have to wonder about that. As a slightly-larger-than-the-Japanese-average male, I was packed into my compartment pretty tightly.
We visited the KAIYUKAN in Osaka, which is an amazing aquarium. I was able to see a WHALE SHARK for the first time there!
Funny thing happened, though. The whale shark went rogue and broke all the glass in his huge tank. Luckily, I had my SCUBA gear donned just in case (I explore all aquariums this way). Sending the rest of the patrons up to safety, I selected my +2 Greatsword of Water Awesoming and headed into the inevitable battle.
As often happens in battles with giant sea creatures, I tired easily. However, my sword, being of the kind that creates giant shockwaves in the water (what else would you bring to an aquarium?) made short work of the beast…
Nara is an ancient site of the capitol of Japan. It is famous for the many deer which roam all around and greet visitors. You can even purchase “shika-senbei” or “deer rice crackers” to feed them. They’ll eat right out of your hand.
As we were visiting the famous five-tiered pavilion there, we noticed that there were several people lying injured on the ground. One of them was still alive. He whispered in Japanese, “please…the armor inside…use it to defend Nara…” and then died in my arms. What a terrible Tuesday afternoon, I thought. However, I took the key that was in his hand and headed to the pavilion. When I unlocked it, I came upon a wondrous sight: the Ancient Armor of Sento-kun, the hero of Nara.
Naturally, I donned the armor and sought out whatever was threatening Nara.
It turned out that the threat was worse than I could ever have imagined…
Two giant statues had come to life in the middle of the city, causing havoc and trying to make their way to Kyoto! Well, my deer steed and I wouldn’t stand for that. We charged into battle…
…but Marfa had gotten there first!
To no one’s surprise, she made short work of the giants.
After besting the whale shark, riding a deer, and saving the ancient seat of Japan, we were pretty tired.
COMING UP NEXT in Part 2 of 2:
- My sister Nikki visits (via spaceship)
- We level up
…actually, how do you say that, for blogs?
…just read the next one, okay guys?
“Yaki” means “to grill/fry” and “niku” is “meat.”
If you eat yakiniku at a restaurant, you will most likely be given a platter full of delicious meats. Unfortunately, vegetables are also included.
Actually, this is one case where veggies are pretty delicious. You also receive a little dipping bowl with ponzu sauce for dipping. Some places have other sauces, too.
Your table will have a kind of dome of metal in the middle of it. At some point, after you’ve fiddled with it and nearly singed your eyebrows off, an attendant will come and show you how to turn it on.
Flames shown for effect.
After the initial lighting, the metal dome becomes a smooth surface on which you are going to grill your meats and vegetables! But not before we add some grilling lubricant.
That’s right, here comes the lard, and it’s never been more delicious.
After the grilling surface has been sufficiently delicioused, it is now time to choose your first thing to grill.
I highly suggest the pork. Not only is it rich in fat, but it has some great flavor, even without sauce.
After choosing what you’ll grill, lower it onto the grilling surface with a pair of special, extra-long chopsticks.
Make sure it lands in some delicious lard.
It will sizzle right away, but take a few minutes to fully cook, so keep an eye on it.
After it is completely cooked, remove it with a normal pair of chopsticks and select a sauce in which to dip. Ponzu is the traditional favorite, but you can also try other sauces.
For a special treat, you can combine grilled onions, leeks, and your choice of meat, dipping and eating it all in one fell swoop.
The cold morning air grips my bare skin. I’m making my way back from the shower when I remember, “the games are today.” Realizing that I forgot to pick up some athletic pants, I remember how much I hate the Seam. That is, the seam in non-athletic pants when I am trying to run. I slip into shorts, despite the chilly weather, don a jacket, move toward the door. Then I remember: my running shoes are also broken, the soles coming almost clear off from all of my hunting trips at the local market, which is quite far, beyond the fence of our apartment complex. I slip on my familiar old pair of sneakers, hoping that they’ll be enough to get me through today.
As I open the door of our modest home, I find that it has been raining for some time outside. I curse as I remember that these shoes have holes in them, but I have little choice if I am to run. My only other pair of shoes are dress shoes, not exactly suited for the track.
The Board of Education, they call it “Sports Day,” but we all know the truth. Behind every festive banner and smile, there is a clipboard with all of our names. Even mine. This may be the last year that I am called on to run with the others. I am almost too old now, but this year I must still run.
As I arrive at the sports center, specially rented for the Running Games, I find smiles on the faces of the teachers and administrators. They welcome me, almost kindly, and I for one minute I find myself forgetting that they are the Racemakers, the ones who have planned and orchestrated this entire ordeal. They smile because they know they don’t have to run, and because they know I must. Not to run would mean humiliation, or worse.
I greet the rest of the runners, students from Minami High School. Most of them look haunted about the eyes from exhaustion, from worry, from anticipation of their own ruin. For some of them, this is their first Runner Games, and I pity them today even as I envy their as-still-untouched ignorance about the horror that the Games really are.
I walk inside to find a huge crowd of students, most of whom are quiet in fear. Some just sit, staring at the floor, not even aware of their surroundings. It is indeed a pitiable sight, but one I must endure. After all, better than anyone, know the reason for their long stare into space: the Games change you.
Before they begin the Games in earnest, the Racemakers give their usual speeches about how we benefit from the Games and why we should be proud to work hard for our school. Their shallow words ring hollow against all our ears, save a few first-years who have yet to fully understand. Yet, as we must, we accept the challenges set forth by the speakers, and try to pretend we have a choice. A young student, no more than a second-year, steps forward to accept a flag. The flag is an old way of communicating the worst part of the Games’ facade: that this is for our benefit, for our pride. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I have tried to inform the Racemakers that they will have no show because of me: I have athsma, and must go at a slower pace. I cannot offer them the entertainment that they seek. Their mouths curled into a smile, and they simply said, “you can run with the girls.” With the girls. Albeit somewhat difficult to swallow, this is my best chance of surviving the Games. I know that if I can make it at least to the finish line, I can survive with a bit of my dignity, a bit of who I really am. If I fail…I might as well forget about that.
Long before I feel prepared, we are all being herded, like cattle, toward an ominous gate. The gate opens onto a field, and it is only now that I realize the ordeal I have yet to endure. Hundreds of students are practicing on the track, and sharp orange cones create rows of visible flame, setting the stage on which I may come to my doom. What strikes me about the scene, more than anything else, is the spectators. They sit there on their comfortable seats, warmed by luxurious blankets and sipping hot beverages. They have no idea what it is like to be here on the field, feeling so alone, chest tight from anticipation. They see us as less than human. We are here for their entertainment, and for them, we will run in the Games.
Too soon, all of the girls are amassing on the track, forming a writhing crowd. Here and there are shouts to a friend or hoots of encouragement, but they are quickly silenced. There is no place for levity in the Games. No, we are here to run, and run we will. One of the Racemakers climbs a small stepping stool and holds a pistol into the air. The look on his face is priceless as he pulls the trigger, full of expectancy and doubt. He catches my eyes, and I catch his. For a moment, I smile, but it is not in compliance. He smiles back, seeming to have understood, and the shot goes off. I am running.
The first two kilometers go by quickly. It is no small feat for one with asthma as I have, and I begin to feel confident in my ability to finish this race. Perhaps my asthma is not going to show today? But no, as I round the next corner, we begin a steep ascent, and the extra energy to begin climbing is simply not there. I search for the breath to keep running, but it is as though someone is squeezing me around the chest. I cannot draw a single breath. My eyes dart to the sides of the arena. Perhaps someone has seen my plight and recognized that I need help. Certainly one of them will send me some aid? But all I find are smiles and gestures of encouragement. It sickens me, how they see me as less than human. They have no idea what I’m going through, but I smile and trudge on just the same. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing me beaten. Besides, I’m not beaten yet.
On the third kilometer, I begin to catch my second wind, but my feet are dragging. The poor shoes have taken their toll, and I can feel large blisters surfacing on my heels and toes. “Keep running, Rick,” I tell myself. I tell myself these things to keep going, because I have to. I can’t stop now. The Racemakers’ faces glare down from the grandstands as I pass by. They are mocking me with their smiles and waves. “One foot in front of the other, Rick,” I say. It is all I can do to listen to my own advice.
My breathing is so tight now, that I begin to have altered vision. Small spots and flecks of color appear time to time, but I must still keep going. I am so close, now, too close to give up. Ahead, I spot something almost unbelievable: Nao, and my other friends from Debate Club. I can scarcely believe my luck! In hundreds of girls, I am running just behind a few friends. This may make the experience bearable, give me the endurance I need to reach the finish line. I catch up to her at great effort, and we begin talking in between coughs and heavy breaths.
We jog this way for the last two kilometers. My breathing is ragged, now, almost inhuman. I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in a window as we round one of the final corners, and I barely recognize myself: wet hair covering my face, shoes now merely for show, as they’re soaked through with the downpour which has begun.
I run for my friends, to keep them running, now. We have been through so many days together, speaking and studying English, readying for debate, and it is this bond that pushes us to keep running. We fall silent as we round the last corner, because we have no breath for speaking now. We don’t even have enough to keep running properly, arms falling nearly to our sides in exhaustion. But even so, now I can see the finish line. I barely begin to allow myself to hope. I think of my family and young Nikki back home. How she is coming in two months and how I have to maintain a good rapport with my students so that they’ll let Nikki come to school. I think of my mother back home, probably waiting for a phone call, any communication to know that I am okay. I think of these things and I know that I have to finish, not for myself, but for everyone back home. It’s then that the athsma chooses to take me.
It was quick and pronounced, the pain in my chest. I feel my lungs constricting. I try to force them open, gasp for air, but nothing happens. It is as if someone has built a brick wall around my chest, and I can not expand my lungs to take in the air I so desperately need. I can see the finish line, see Nao trotting beside me. She hasn’t noticed, yet, but I am falling behind. As I slow to a walk, I know that we’ll be torn apart at this moment. They’ll be alone to run through the finish line, already far near the back. It’s a fate worse than death, but I can do nothing about it now. They will probably receive little applause, and mostly scowls will greet them at the finish, if anything does. My own body has given up on me. I’ve failed them. Nao and the others catch my eyes as I fall behind, and I give them an almost imperceptible shake of my head, “no, I can’t.” They turn and keep running, as I walk, helpless, trying to regain enough air to make it the final 200 yards.
As I walk a few steps, others pass me, and I’m already near the back. I can’t be last. I must continue on. For Nikki, for Nao and the others, for everyone back home. I steel myself, attempt to breathe, and find that the walking has loosened my chest just enough to get one or two full breaths. I take them, long, deep breaths, and then I strike out again, kicking my feet in front of me mechanically, beginning to run.
As I reach the finish line, now completely disoriented and nearing collapse, I notice the huge crowd of people who are there to welcome me. It strikes me: perhaps I was wrong all along. Perhaps the Racemakers really did want us to succeed, to see who we could really become. Maybe that is the point of the Games.
When I was in High School, my asthma kept me from being very good at any athletic attempts. For a brief time, I even joined track and field. The humiliation every day at practice, when I would lag far behind the others, was almost too difficult to bear. There were several opportunities to prove myself after that, but I never gave it any thought. I never tried to prove to myself that I could run in something like the Games.
But today, that all changed. Perhaps it was being so far away from family, from everything I’ve ever known. Perhaps it was knowing that this, too, was part of my responsibilities to those back home and to those whom I teach every day. Regardless of the reason, I found a huge smile on my face as I crossed the finish line. None of them knew what a big day this was for me, but I knew in my heart. I have never finished a long race, never pushed myself through the pain to accomplish finishing something like this. It may have taken being halfway across the world, but for me, right now, this victory is personal. No one can take it away from me. As I cross the finish line and slow to a walk, I hold my head up high. I may have been expected to participate in these Games, may have been entered into a long list of unremarkable names, but now everyone will acknowledge that I finished the race. They don’t understand how much it has cost me, but that makes the victory so much more personal. I crossed the finish for everyone back home, Nao, with her birdlike chirps of encouragement, and, most importantly, for myself.
Now where are those berries I’ve heard so much about? I’m famished.